As CBS' New Morning Star, Kentucky's Phyllis George Decides She'll Take Manhattan

updated 12/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 01:00AM

Last week, while Phyllis George's agent was nitpicking over her estimated $750,000-a-year contract to co-anchor the weekday CBS Morning News, the newest star in TV journalism was covering breaking stories on the domestic front. "My daughter, Pamela, is celebrating her first birthday and my 4-year-old son, Lincoln, has discovered how to start a car," Phyllis reported from the 17-acre farm in Lexington, Ky., where she lives with her highflying husband, ex-Governor John Young Brown Jr., 50. "And the whole family is walking around in fuzzy slippers because the furnace has gone out."

The 35-year-old 1971 Miss America is clearly more expert at family affairs than foreign affairs. "I know that I'm going to be learning on the job," admits George, who was wooed by the network during a three-week on-air trial run in late October and early November. She is counting on her drive, plus her experience in sportscasting, to carry her through. "From eight years on NFL Today [the CBS sports show], I've learned how to do live TV," she notes. "TV is my medium and I'm eager to take the risk of network news."

Some of her network colleagues are not as eager for the experiment as George. As the replacement for brainy Diane Sawyer, who left for 60 Minutes, the unschooled reporter beat out such seasoned CBS newswomen as Jane Wallace and Meredith Vieira. "They wanted a glamorous star," grouses one staffer, "and Phyllis was a better journalist than Candice Bergen."

In the breakfast TV wars, CBS has been content to maintain a dignified third place with a no-frills newscast against the glitzier Good Morning America and Today. But no more. "There's no virtue in being No. 3," says Morning News producer Jon Katz. "Phyllis is a major personality who will bring viewers into our tent."

Not coincidentally, when George joins the newscast in January, it will have new graphics, a new set and a new group of contributors, including health expert Dr. Frank Field and business editor Robert Krulwich. Says Katz: "We're not going to go squishysoft with a bunch of movie-star profiles. But, like any major newspaper today, we're going to reflect the fact that news is more than press conferences and plane crashes."

Although Phyllis hopes that she can cover "all areas of news," it is likely that she will do feature stories of particular interest to women. "I think women who watch morning newscasts share my concerns about motherhood, work and family issues," says Phyllis, who will have strong competition from those other working moms, Jane Pauley (NBC) and Joan Lunden (ABC).

The pursuit of George took her co-anchor, Bill Kurtis, by surprise. A respected, low-key newsman, Kurtis was not consulted about Phyllis' tryout until shortly before the news leaked. "I took that as a real insult," he admits, but the anchorman sees advantages in their shotgun marriage. "Phyllis has great energy and on-camera skills," says Kurtis, who undoubtedly will continue to claim most of the hard news stories. "She's a delight to work with and our strengths will complement each other."

During her tryout, Phyllis displayed an undeniable ease with the camera and she gained high marks for off-camera demeanor. "She's warm and friendly, and she's easy to work with," says one staffer. But the L.A. Times critic said, tongue in cheek, "She added nothing. She took away nothing ... she was real nice." Although she was able to book an elusive Dr. Armand Hammer for an interview, her journalistic objectivity needs work. Of her friend Hammer, she gushed on-camera, "If only he could achieve his goal of helping to bring peace with the Russians ...." During her run, Phyllis lived alone in the Browns' three-bedroom apartment in New York, but "John called me every day to tell me how I did," she says.

With her new job, George will be uprooting her family from their old Kentucky home. After Christmas in Lexington, she, John and their children will transfer to their Manhattan apartment until they locate larger quarters. John—who will commute regularly on business to Kentucky—says he supports his wife all the way, although he would have preferred that Phyllis sign a two-year contract instead of the three-year deal to which she agreed. "It's terrible to bring a country boy to the city," quips Brown. "But Phyllis went with me when I ran for Governor, and now it's my time to follow her."

Brown, who reportedly has presidential ambitions, recently withdrew from a Senate campaign because of the lingering effects of heart surgery in 1983. "He is fully recovered now," says Phyllis. During his term as Governor, which ended in December 1983, the jet-setting Kentuckian was investigated for withdrawing $1.3 million in cash from a bank to cover gambling debts. In the 1970s, Brown turned Kentucky Fried Chicken into a nationwide chain. His latest venture is a plan to put advertisements inside toilet stalls.

After overcoming her own and her husband's reservations about the Big Apple, Phyllis had one more critic to deal with. "My mother thought I shouldn't move my family," George says of her mom, who lives in Phyllis' hometown, Denton, Texas. Along with Phyllis' persuasion, local opinion convinced Mrs. George. "She went to the grocery store, and everybody was telling her how good I was." If viewers agree, Phyllis George may have the last laugh on critics who say she's the newscast equivalent of fast food.

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